Wealth, Greed, and the American Gospel

Wealth, Greed, and the American Gospel

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When Martin Shkreli, American Entrepreneur and Pharmaceutical Executive, recently acquired the rights to a drug used to fight AIDS and increased its price from $13.50 to $750 per pill, there were incredible cries of outrage.  In recent weeks, at least according to photos chosen by media outlets, that outrage increased, as he was shown testifying before Congress making faces and calling names like a 3rd grade playground bully.

Now, I do not know very much about him or the world of Big Pharma, or about Insurance Companies; I don’t know too much about monopolies, or wealth acquisition, but I do know a little about the Gospel, and I know a little of the Gospel Américain.  Let’s start with the latter, and end with the bona fide Good News.

Gospel Americain

The Gospel Américain is an interesting mix of “You can do anything you put your mind to” and “love your neighbor”.  The former is ingrained in the minds of every American child.  We are taught from the youngest age that through hard work and dedication, we can become even President of the United States.  Two or three of the current candidates for President tell that very story: from poverty to “the American Dream”—only November will tell us who reaches the zenith.  Indeed, the dogma of fortitude and hard work often pays off in the United States; there are many, many stories, told and untold about those who worked their ways to the “top”.  Do you remember the classic 80s movie, “Secret of My Success” which tells of a mail-room clerk who became head of a company? Or the dark Cohen Brothers “Hudsucker Proxy” from the early 90s?  (Caveat Lector: I cannot vouch for content—I have a poor memory except for themes!)  In recent days I recall a significant cultural critique, in silly form, of this concept—Key and Peele’s “You Can Do Anything” skit.

Mixed in with “you can do whatever you put your mind to”, the United states also has a low-grade conscience.  (I say low-grade, because it is very, very selective.)  Whenever there is a disaster here or elsewhere, the United States is often first in line to help.  Think Indonesian Tsunami in 2004.  Or Hurricane Katrina.  Or 9/11.  Images of Americans doing what President George W Bush called in his 9/11 speech, “the Best of America” are emblazoned in our minds after these terrible disasters.  Americans are quick to serve victims.  To be sure, this is a virtue.  I am not certain, however, that “love your neighbor” is naturally and immutably encoded in the soul.  One has to be catechized to love both neighbor and enemy.  And I am not certain that our nation reflects on the damage we inflict around the world—peoples who suffer disasters at our hands—but that is another essay.

So, if it is fair to summarize the “Two Great Commandments” of the United States, they might be, “Work hard and you’ll get to the top,” and “help those in times of need”.

When Christ isn’t present

But what happens when “work hard and what you earn is yours” is met with no Christian catechism of self-emptying, humility, and gratitude?  In a capitalist society, taken to the logical extreme, you get a talented young man who uses his clever skills to make himself very, very rich, at the expense of the recovery of health of others.  Somehow that resonates in our soul as the equivalent of taking food from babies or harming a grandmother.

Should we expect young entrepreneurs to have a Christian vision? A Christian heart?  The recent Pew Forum studies on religion indicate that among 30-49 year olds, only 1 in 3 seeks guidance on right and wrong from religion, and 2 out of 3 in that age group don’t believe there are set standards of right and wrong!  66%!  (It is worse in the younger age, 18-29.  Only 1 in 4 seeks guidance on right and wrong from religion, and 3 in 4 don’t believe there are absolutes in right and wrong.)

In a culture which says, “what you earn is yours,” and at the same time increasingly rejects Christianity as the font from which to catechize the young on selflessness, humanity, virtue, good, why should we expect any differently?  Or why do we stand aghast when a man does this with the price of a pill, but we won’t tithe to our churches?  Is it because we trust the Gospel Américain more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  Or why are we indignant about his greed, but turn blind eyes to our own addictions to pornography, rampant divorce, gender confusion?  Or just other forms of entrepreneurialism?  Are we jealous of his money?  Here in South Carolina, we are a culture that preys on those who are bad at math, and who often have very little money to spare:  we have an “education lottery”, where some portion of the lottery funds pay for scholarships, while vast amount of money are lured from the poor because “today might be my lucky day.”

Or are we confronted by our own mortality?  This question might strike a nerve…Shkreli’s pill might mean life or death for someone!  But we forge on to broker endless wars to destroy unnamed enemies.  And we not only condone, but also promote as an inalienable right and a “women’s health issue” the killing of 3000 infants in utero every single day!  And somehow we are a culture which denies death even when it happens!  Mercy: there are now on the one hand funerals, which are re-named “celebrations of life”, which take neither sin, nor the judgment of God, nor mortality seriously, and on the other hand, funerals where the deceased is dressed and posed sitting at a table playing cards and drinking beer!

If we were Adam or Eve

These are spiritual questions that we have to ask.  “If I were in his position, I would never do that!”  Really?  How can you be so confident?  Even the number of people who claim to have virtuous ideas on how to use millions in lottery winnings wind up broke and alone!  And in our spiritual tradition, the same point can be made: “If I were Adam or Eve, I would have been faithful!”  “Baloney!” say the Fathers. The Proof:  you and I know better right now, and we still betray both Jesus and neighbor.

As we approach the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, we need to turn these questions back on ourselves.  If the young do not know right from wrong, who failed to teach them?  (Hint: you and I!)  If the 30-somethings are striking it rich and banking millions at the expense of others, who taught them? (Hint: you and I!)  If those in the news don’t know that the Gospel is about working one’s way to the bottom, rather than to the top, who failed to evangelize them?  (Hint…)

We confuse ourselves if we think America is a Christian Catechist.  For all its virtues, America is the Savior neither of this world, nor the next.  Nor is Capitalism.  Nor Socialism.  Jesus is the Savior of the world.  And until we place both our feet firmly in the Kingdom of God and seek His righteousness, we’ll continue fooling ourselves, and judging our neighbor.

  

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Fr. John Parker

Fr John Parker is the pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina, and the Chair of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He graduated the College of William and Mary (1993) with a major in Spanish and a minor in German. He earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. After being received into the Orthodox Church, he earned an MTh at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, where is also currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program. He has been a frequent writer for Charleston, SC's Post and Courier. He and Matushka Jeanette celebrated 20 years of marriage in April 2014, and have two sons nearing High School graduation.